A small town with explosive history – Shoebury Garrison

As a kid, I would go to a place called Gunners Park. It was a green open space with a duck pond, some wooded areas and a nature reserve. I loved exploring it; especially looking through the fencing of a private area where there was a hill, which my sister and I would joke was Watership Down.

As an adult that place still exists with half of it being incorporated into a housing estate called the Garrison and the rest a Nature reserve. What was once private MOD land was now accessible to the public including the various military defences built in a time when we were under threat from invasion.

Within the Garrison estate, there exists a listed piece of land, which dates back to the Iron Age. Evidence shows that there was a  settlement, which would have formed a semi-circle. Within this settlement, there would have been roundhouses, ditches and possibly some kind of fortified wall. It is believed that it was this settlement, which the Vikings retreated to after the Battle of Benfleet (see my article)

Not much else really happened of note on this area of land for hundreds of years. Our narrative jumps forward to the 1840s at the Royal Artillery ranges in Woolwich. It was beginning to be more and more difficult to use the ranges due to the proximity of the shipping route, which was getting busier and busier as time went on.

Because of this, a search began to find a more suitable location and Shoeburyness was put forward. In 1856, the Secretary of State would give the authorisation to establish Shoeburyness as a place for experimental practice and the Shoebury ranges were officially in existence. The land would be purchased from local landowner Dale Knapping.

Buildings still in existence from this period include the Commandants House, the Officers Mess, Garrison Hospital, a single storey Sergeant’s quarters and two powder magazines. The hospital would be the most modern barrack hospital of its day; the drawings in the archives are the oldest (dated 26th June 1856). Florence Nightingale would reference the hospital in a later to a friend in October 1868 highlighting her awareness of its existence and recommended the Lord Mayor to go and visit it (he already had by this point). It is possible that she will have even visited it herself. It contained Fever, Casualty and four general wards and a surgery. At the rear, there would be the ‘itch’ (isolation) ward and the Mortuary. George Smith and his sons who would go on to work on other buildings in the village itself built the hospital. Their names were later given to George, Smith, and John Street.

With the outbreak of the Crimean War came the realisation for a need for a dedicated school which was focused on Gunnery for the Royal Artillery. This new school would be founded at Shoebury in 1859. The creation of this school would lead to further land purchase and more building construction. Some of the buildings built in this period included Horseshoe Barracks, a Sergeant’s mess, a parade ground, the Garrison School and an arched gateway and clock tower that still stands proudly today.

The last piece of land to be brought for the site was in 1886 and led to the construction of Campfield Road and the creation of the Sergeants Married quarters (given the nickname the Birdcage).

IN FOCUS – The Royal Artillery – They are the artillery arm of the British Army and have been in service since 1716, and therefore involved in every campaign that the army has been involved in since then. Made up of a number of units the RA have always used some form of cannon when in the battlefield.

In 1899, the RA was split into three sections – the royal field Artillery (the largest branch), Royal Horse Artillery, and Royal Garrison Artillery (they would provide the largest guns such as the Howitzers). Merged back into one regiment after the First World War they were instead divided into brigades, which are the time of the Second World War. be over 960 and 1 million men.

One of the roles of the garrison was for experimental testing and use of guns rockets and explosives. Experimental casemates were built in 1872-3. These would be adapted in 1892 to the Light Quick Firing Battery. The Heavy Quick Firing Battery soon followed this, which had also been adapted from a previous structure.

Some of the testing and artillery development at this time included riddled barrels, breach loading, hales war rockets, shrapnel, quick-fire weapons and the replacement of gunpowder with cordite.

With so much experiential testing going on and explosives, an accident was bound to happen. One did occur in 1885, which would be the highest death toll on the garrison in its history. An accidental explosion occurred killing seven personnel. Today there is a memorial on the site of the explosion and through public subscription, the married Soldiers Hospital was built, the Garrison Pub now sits on the site of the hospital.

In 1914, the war would break out across Europe. On the front Lt Col Richardson was with his two dogs, Wolf and Prince who he had trained to pass messages from the trenches to the command posts. The War Office decided to establish a British War Dog School and Richardson was asked to do this in 1917. The eventual location would be Shoeburyness as the guns from the Front could be heard. The dogs would be sourced from rescue centres and eventually, appeals were sent out for people to donate their pets.

In the first month, 30 dogs were successfully sent out who had undergone a similar training method to that of their human counterpart soldiers – repetition. Hundreds of dogs would be sent to the front and the school grew to an extent that it would be relocated to Lyndhurst.

The war would see a major shortage of weapons and heavy artillery. In April 1913, a 9.2-in Howitzer would be built and trails were held at the Garrison in September. It would fire 48 rounds and would be nicknamed ’Mother’. It was sent over to France after the trails were completed.

PHOTO – 6 April 1916: HM King George V visited Old and New Ranges.

In 1917, there would be another fatal accident on the Garrison, which would cause the second highest death toll in its history. It occurred on 30th April when a breach blew out killing five soldiers.

Only a year later a fire would break out on the New Ranges and would grow beyond control. The fire would reach the ammunition dumps causing a number of explosions, which would continue for 24 hours. Only one man perished, many were evacuated to the Kursaal for safety. Once under control, the damage caused was accessed and would be to the value of £3 million.

Further development of the garrison would be carried out because of the outbreak of the Second World War in 1936. New defences were made to assist in the protection of not only the site but also the surrounding area should there be an invasion. New command posts and searchlight emplacements were added at various posts on the garrison along with air raid shelters.

At East Beach, a defence boom was constructed stretching into the estuary. What you can see today was the replacement added during the Cold War. It was built to stop and prevent submarines from entering the Thames estuary. Wooden piles would be sunk into the seabed. When it was completed, it was six miles long and would reach out into the deep water channel. Over in Kent, a similar one was erected at Minster and gates were then added to connect the two structures.

During this time, many soldiers would pass through the site for training or on their way to Europe. One such soldier was a man name Francis Howered who was a Gunner. While based at the Garrison he would find a captive audience to watch his comedic act, which would launch him into stardom. He would organise weekly concerts and work his nervousness to his advantage. It was while touring Southend on Sea with his group the co-oddments that he was billed as Frankie Howerd. He would eventually be posted to German and after the war; he would continue his stand up routine and become a famous comedian.

The Prime Minister, Winston Churchill would visit the Garrison a number of times during the Second World War. In January 1941, he would witness the AA ‘Z’  Rocket firings and in June the same year, he would watch some weapon demonstrations. One of the weapons that Churchill himself would test was the Swedish Light Machine gun, which resembled the American Tommy Gun. A photo of Churchill holding this gun was released to the press and would even make it to German press with the caption; Churchill the Gangster

The garrison would be disbanded in 1976 and was closed off to the public. New life was breathed into it in 2000 however, when permission was granted for a large housing development to be built on the site, including the development of many of the listed properties to be converted into homes. The Garrison’s military heritage is now nationally recognised and protected. Many of its surviving buildings are listed buildings.

In 2000, a survey was taken on the garrison titled the World War II Defences Survey. It states that ‘… many of the guns, pivots, and racers which dot the area have a 19th or early 20th-century provenance. Some, with particularly good survival, are thought to be very rare….’

Today it is open to the public to look around and explore. Some of the surviving military structures include –

•    The Experimental Casement, which has sealed with shutters to help preserve the structure.

•    The heavy quick fire battery (1898). Mounted on top of this would have been anti-shipping guns and searchlights.

•    Gunpits, which have now been filled in and grassed over, but one can see some evidence of them.

•    Ground Level pillbox

•    The drill shed (which hopefully if plans are put into action will become a heritage and Information Centre).

•    Nine air raid shelters, it is thought that there may have been up to 50 within the garrison.

•    Gogs Berth – where two barges names Gog and Magog would carry the Woolwich Infant Cannons from Woolwich Arsenal to be tested at the Garrison.

•    Barge Pier – or garrison pier. It would have been 380 ft in length and would have been served with a railway. Although it is not known what the pier was exactly used for.

There is a Heritage and Wildlife Day event at Gunners Park on 11th August from 10.30. Head over to the following link for more information – https://www.facebook.com/events/743244376091508/

Sources:

Hill, T. (1999) Guns and Gunners at Shoeburyness. Bron: Buckingham

Longdon, P. M, (1990) Shoebury Garrison Conservation Guide. Southend on Sea Borough Council: Essex

Southend Council (2004) Shoebury garrison conservation area character appraisal October 2004. Available from: https://www.southend.gov.uk/download/downloads/id/1844/shoebury_garrison_conservation_area_appraisal_-_october_2004. [Accessed 15/6/19]

Anon (2014) Shoeburyness, Essex: Training Dogs for War. Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0245mgc [Accessed 15.6.19]

Hill, T (nd) MOD Shoeburyness Timeline and Historic Images. Available from: https://shoeburyness.qinetiq.com/about/timeline.aspx [accessed 17.6.19]

Historic England (nd) Defended prehistoric settlement at Shoeburyness, known as the Danish Camp. Available from: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1017206 [Accessed 15.6.19

Houghton, I (ND) SOUTHEND ON SEA DURING THE GREAT WAR. Available from: https://www.tommy1418.com/southend-on-sea.html [Accessed 15.6.19]

National Army Museum (nd) The Royal Artillery. Available from: https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/royal-artillery [Accessed 14/6/19]

Skinner, N (nd) 1918. Available from: https://www.southendtimeline.com/1918.htm [Accessed 16.5.29]

Skinner, N (nd) The Old Ranges. Available from: https://www.southendtimeline.com/theoldranges.htm [Accessed 16.5.19]

Skinner N (nd) WW2 Defence Boom. Available from: https://www.southendtimeline.com/ww2defenceboom.htm [Accessed 16.5.19]

Southend Council (2019) Shoebury Garrison Heritage Centre. Available from: https://www.southend.gov.uk/info/200352/local_history_and_heritage/98/shoebury_garrison_heritage_centre [Accessed 15.6.19]

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